Monday, April 18, 2016

After Divorce: When a Fling is Not Just a Fling

According to the dictionary, a fling is a “short, spontaneous sexual relationship.” I never had one. Okay, I had one: I was in college on spring break in Florida and with enough cheap beer, the lead singer of the cover band became a stand-in for Bono, never mind he spoke with a Jersey accent instead of an Irish brogue. But bookending that one night, I had always fallen hard and fast into long term relationships. Sure, I went through a phase of collegiate hookups fueled by alcohol, a lot of alcohol, but what happened under those conditions was mostly forgotten by morning. The alcohol, as Peggy Orenstein suggests in her new book Girls and Sex, creates “compulsory carelessness... a way to signal that the sex was meaningless.” Also, in 1990, if you were a girl, and you wanted sex, soberly sought sex, you were a slut. Easier to circumvent that label with a few Jell-O shots.
I met my now ex-husband when I was twenty-two, and within a week, we were, for all practical purposes, living together. I kept my apartment for over a year to placate my more conservative parents, an expensive extra closet. Suffice it to say, when my friends were having their exploratory entanglements, discovering what they liked and how many ways they liked it, I was swooning over an All-Clad stainless steel saucier and Pottery Barn accent pillows. Sex was pleasant, domestic, often fraught for me, and never often enough for him. For the tenure of our marriage, I had enough of the latent Catholic in me to believe in the commitment of our marital vows: fidelity at face value. Maybe it was just my lazy libido. Maybe I should have looked more closely at phone records.
I had my first adult fling (unaided by Jell-O shots) six months after the divorce, hopefully long enough so that it wasn’t in angry reaction to his infidelity and my need to have my self-esteem buttressed. Because that was the default rumination long into the dark hours of night after learning about the affair. Why wasn’t I good enough? The voice of deficit and shame crept in, undermining every ego inflating belief I had about myself. Leaning into the mirror to apply mascara, instead of noticing what I think are my prettyish eyes, I focused on the lines winging out from their corners, or pulling on my jeans, I was enraged by the folds at my tummy, or snapping on my bra, I was deflated by my breasts which were no longer perky after breastfeeding two babies. Always, the self-directed spite flaring up as I compared myself to her, the younger, tinier, shinier her. I am not enough. She is more.
Many of us hear this voice in some form that whispers, “You aren’t good enough to be chosen, to be wanted, to be loved. Not for real. Not for keeps.” As a girl, I was obsessed with horses and imagined galloping over fields and fences. When my parents finally sent me away to a ritzy horseback riding camp, I was ecstatic and terrified: me vs. rich girls. At the evaluation, I was sent into the paddock and told to mount up. The other campers, accomplished riders, sat on the fence watching me. I fumbled my way onto the horse, forgot everything I’d imaginatively rehearsed in my head, and kicked the horse hard in the sides. The girls exploded in derisive laughter. That was it. I’d shown myself to be a fraud and would not be chosen. For the rest of my two weeks, I spent most of my hours sequestered on the tennis court, thwacking balls lobbed by the ball machine. Too scared to ride again.
There are so many ways we convince ourselves we will never be enough. Too skinny. Too fat. Too awkward, too inhibited. Too crazy, too unhinged. What might it mean to be enough? Not just to be sufficient, but to be someone in an ample supply? Ample in feeling, ample in body, ample in desire, ample in truth, ample in love?
And so the fling. Definition #2: in Old Norse, a fling is defined as “a reckless movement of the body.” This is closer to what I now choose open-eyed as an adult learning what it is that I like and the ways that I like it. Not that I advocate freewheeling promiscuity, at least not for me. I tend to flood things with meaning: words, gestures, touch, breath. It’s why I burrow into etymology. Words have history and weight and substance and backwards and forwards implications. You say “fling,” and mean “meaningless sex.” I say “fling” and mean “a wild connection that breaks things apart and puts them back together in disruptive creation.” Everything all at once and fraught with equal significance. But I can choose without regret now since I choose sober (alas, the Bono look-alike was a pasty-faced 7-11 clerk by day) and unafraid (or at least, have the courage to have courage).
New York City. July. A coffee shop in the West Village. I’d been pretending to be cool but was mostly just feeling alone. As I was getting up to leave, the most objectively beautiful man I’d ever seen started talking to me. Taller than me, so I had to look up into brown eyes that I could swim in. I think I wobbled.
“I like your boots,” he said.
I laughed. Was he hitting on me? Honestly, no one had hit on me in the twenty years I’d been with my ex, so I didn’t know how to read the signs. Maybe he just really liked my boots? They were great: soft brown calfskin, stacked heels. We chatted, back and forth, prickles of electricity. I was a writer from Pennsylvania; he was an actor and musician from L.A. Though it was difficult talking because he had this wide open smile which fell across me. In my sixth grade diary, I pasted photographs of Rob Lowe scissored from Teen Beat and surrounded them with purple glitter-glued hearts. So when this man talked to me, it was hard to focus because a glitter-glue heart throbbed around his face. He asked for my name, so shaky-handed, I wrote it and my blog address on a slip of paper and left. That was that, I thought. Dreamy. Tuck it away.
Except. He emailed that night. He’d read my blog and connected. The end of love, the sadness, the resurfacing. What better way to seduce a writer than to tell her you were seduced by her words? We met for coffee, talked breathlessly. Time constraints: I was going back to Pennsylvania, he was going back to L.A. When he kissed me? A movie kiss. He was an actor, so he maybe had it down; maybe he had the whole thing down, and I hadn’t learned anything at all from my ex’s infidelity and my naïve, wholehearted trust. Too good to be true, right? Actor/Musician/Beautiful/6’3’’ (to my 5’10”)/Funny/Serious. A script, one of those romances that I dismiss as easy, unearned froth. But it felt real and simply, my heart stopped. Cliché, I know.
The rest of the story is mine and his.
We only had a few days. That’s the definition of a fling. But because I tend to speak my truth, I suggested (oh-hopeless-please-pick-me-don’t-laugh-at-me-from-the-fence) that maybe we could attempt the impossible, or at least see if it was a tiny bit possible, and see each other again. Isn’t it worth the risk of getting hurt for a wondrous payoff? Here’s where my bipolar brain comes in: happy = HAPPY and he was making me HAPPY. Bipolar brain sped up: I could raid my 401k and fly out to L.A. on the weeks I didn’t have custody. I didn’t say this, but I did say this:
“My whole brain lights up around you,” I said. Maybe this was a bit much. But I don’t play small anymore or run off to the safe tennis courts.
We returned to our geographical corners. He called a few times, which was confusing because that meant maybe more, and we texted, and never inside a texting “relationship” and on brain filled with sunshine, I texted too much. Terrible, a little shameful, but this was now me: better too much than not enough, better careening than hiding.
You know where this is going. It was, for him, a fling: definition #1. Which is okay. (Not really. But in time, it will be.) I fell hard because that is what I do. That is what recovery and wholeheartedness teach me. I feel it all now: what is wondrous and what is painful because it tells me who I am finally becoming. Irrationally, my heart was broken. But here is the important point: my heart was not broken by anything that creates genuine damage like infidelity, but by the bliss of hope which is damage that can be repaired, which is damage that teaches me what to long for next.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bipolar Recovery: How To Survive a Mauling

My psychiatrist has a life-sized stuffed tiger in his waiting room. At the big cat’s feet is a plastic bin serving up a mangled heap of smaller stuffed animals — parrot, cat, whale, unicorn — and plastic babies missing a limb or an eye. Freud was the first to have a therapy dog. His red chow, Jofi, would lie on the couch next to patients, and when the dog got up to scratch at the door for a pee, Freud would say to his patient, “You see, Jofi is so excited that you’ve been able to discover the source of your anxiety!” But a therapy tiger? Before my daughter knew the crisscrossed scars on my arm were self-inflicted, she used to call them my “tiger stripes,” and she was amazed that I had survived such claws. This tiger, too, comes with a warning. Taped to the wall is this notice: For Your Safety Please Do Not Sit on the Tiger.
I think about this posted warning. Is it a test? Does my doctor really want me to sit on the tiger? What are my unconscious motivations for wanting to sit on the tiger? What neuroses keeps me from sitting on the tiger? And really, safety’s sake aside, I’m supposed to take risks. So, reverse psychology? Or does he want me to make associations? As in, “Eye of the Tiger” — “Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet, Just a man and his will to survive...”
Another patient sits across from me, beside the tiger, nervously flipping through the pages of a kids’ Highlights magazine. Maybe he’s searching for cups and candles and lamps in the Search and Find picture. His knee jiggles. Anxiety? Hypomania? Low-flying schizophrenia? He doesn’t even look at me when I walk over, inches from his bouncy leg, to take a picture of the tiger as if I’m on some psychiatric safari. I sit back down and glance down at my tiger stripes. The last time I did anything like that was five years ago, which was also the last day I drank.
What I remember from that day: arriving at my friend’s baby shower, a blue ribboned gift in hand (cheerful whale stitched onto a matching bib, socks, and onesie), desperately sad because my life had unraveled. Bipolar, anorexic, alcoholic. The perfect, decimating storm. A surge of longing when I gazed at my friend’s moon belly. Always, I had imagined my future with three children. Oldest, middle, youngest — a noisy triumvirate. And I would be the kind of mother capable of holding all that needy, exhausting love.
But after the birth of my second child, my bipolar disorder escalated and my doctors said “no” to my irrational contemplation of a third, and my husband, who bore the brunt of my breakdown, adamantly refused. Too risky, too much, too sick. Besides, I hadn’t needed a tampon for two years — starvation accompanied by over-exercise had turned off the fertility switch. But baby hunger was all I could think about while playing the chocolate-smeared-on-a-diaper game. No more crazy Momma. Just my composed self rocking a warm baby, my lips against the heart-fueled pulse at the fontanel.
What I last remember: standing alone in the kitchen, laughter pealing in from the living room, an island crowded with wine bottles. I had promised my husband I wouldn’t drink since I could no longer control how much or what would happen when I did. But that magnum of acrid cabernet promise? I could blot myself out, find my funny again, instead of sitting on the couch full of nervousness, envy, and loneliness. A glass or two of wine would shake me loose. I filled a plastic cup and drank it down in one swallow. Then another, quickly, desperately. How many could I drink before someone came into the kitchen and caught me? Six, seven, the whole bottle?

What I next remember: waking in the hospital, cuts up and down my arms, and my husband standing in the corner of the room, his lips pressed together, no longer worried and forgiving, but hard and immobile. My kids were nowhere. That is, they were stashed somewhere safe because I was unsafe.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again, adding to my long recitation of sorry’s over the years.

“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked. He hadn’t accepted my apology.
“There was the shower and I drank.” Nothing else after, just an empty, black hole that I didn’t know how to fill.
“After you guzzled wine, you ran outside into the snow and cold without your shoes or coat and wouldn’t come back. Your friends called me, so I could come get you. When I found you out by your car, you insisted you were going to drive off and kill yourself. You meant it. I got you home, but then you did that to your arms. Your doctor said you needed to be admitted.”
I can do this better, I thought. I can do this over. I can stop and be well.
My husband didn’t move toward the bed, but was rigid with fury and resolve. Couldn’t he remember that he had promised to love me, in sickness and in health? Couldn’t he give me another chance, and another chance, and a chance after that? But I knew there would be no talking myself out of this, as I had before: I promise, I promise, I won’t drink so much. I’ll count my drinks. I’ll pay attention.

“I won’t do this anymore,” he said. “If you don’t stop drinking, you lose the kids and me. It’s your choice but this is it.”
The room fell away. Lose them? They were the only reason I was alive. And my husband marooning me with self-loathing and despair? My daughter once drew a picture for me when I was in the hospital during one of my manic episodes: an enormous green and black winged creature with the words, “Momma Come Home!” It was fierce and fiery, born of courage and will. She was calling me to that again.

“Yes,” I said. There was no alternative, not anymore. I had to go home, whatever it took.

In the almost five years since that moment, I got sober and stable and ironically, divorced. The marriage couldn’t ultimately survive the turmoil of my illness or the betrayal of his affair.
For much of my life I said “No” — to love, grace, and assistance. I would go it alone, never mind if I could. Now, “yes” is reflexive. Can I love myself? Yes. Am I a good enough, at times even better, mother? Yes. Do I have the courage to live an authentic life, in truth and forgiveness? Yes. Am I afraid, legs wobbling, in this new life of mine? Yes, but the trajectory from that lonely woman, cut up and starving and hung-over, to the woman writing this without shame and with a belief that the universe is saying “Yes” back to me? I don’t sit on tigers anymore, but I am not risk averse. I risk integrity and truth now, and push my sleeves back, revealing my scars, my tiger stripes, and maybe even risk your seeing all that pain and healing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Saying Yes to the Universe

Even when I’m standing still, I’m still moving.  When I’m awake at night in bed, paralyzed by fear and regret, sure that my life is going nowhere (i.e., into the shitter), I’m still moving.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates at 225 kilometers per second, and careens through our infinite cosmos at 305 kilometers per second.  So every sixty seconds, I travel 20,000 kilometers, or 12,000 miles.  And so do you.

This is a fact, though physically, I can’t feel its truth in my body.  I stand at my window, watching the pit bull next door lope around the yard, or across a few weeks, notice the hostas push their twirled leaves through the ground and unfurl, or the man who staggers up and down the block in his ragged trench coat, dragging his wire cart behind him that is packed with cases of cheap beer.  Everyone else is moving but me.  The universe doesn’t hurl me through the glass and back out into the world with bloodied hands and knees, so I mistake my apparent stillness for the hopeless inertia. 

It didn’t always feel like this.  When I was a kid, I ran at the world.  When I was five, I put on my mother’s silver cuff bracelets which, I believed, imbued me with Wonder Woman’s vaulting powers, and stood on the top of a flight of stairs and jumped.  Of course, I broke my arm, but for a few brief seconds (one?), I was caught in an exhilarating tumble through the air.  At nine, I secreted myself in the basement in front of a robin’s egg blue Smith Corona, and typed out, with great assurance, the opening chapters to a torrid, Victorian romance novel.  What did I know about a heaving bosom and a throbbing manhood?  Nothing, except for when the neighbor boy and I showed each other all that we had in his backyard shed.  But I could dare to imagine what I didn’t know.

As an adolescent, the snake of Bipolar depression slithered in, and I drank to feel better, and cut myself to feel worse--an intertwined attempt at desperate self-medication.  Drinking could, in the moment, transform me into a funnier, more expansive, brash self.  I risked more (though might feel shame and regret later).  Cutting was a way to render unseen pain visible and specific (I smiled for the world while imagining jumping from a bridge).  My arms, concealed under long sleeves, throbbed in acute response to the injuries I suffered on myself.  
For many years, I was pinned beneath the immoveable rubble of illness (Bipolar, Anorexia, Alcoholism) and failure (loss of a job, end of a marriage), standing at the window as what could be my life rushed by at 12,000 miles a minute.  But I am in what is called “recovery” now—no more drinking, only necessary eating and stability.  We usually think of the word “recover” to mean a regaining of health or a return to some prior, longed for condition.  But its Anglo-French roots are more instructive: “to regain consciousness.”  A coming back to the essential self, the self before the shit; the self that can take imaginative, daring leaps into the cosmos. 

Over a year ago, I got divorced from the man who I believed, at least twenty years prior, was my soulmate, a heady designation, more suggestive of a naïve trust in those bodice ripper romances.  When I found out about his many years affair during our marriage?  Momentarily decimated.  For weeks, I was nauseated and sleepless, imagining them together, imagining myself never moving again out of bed, out of grief and anger, out of my life inscribed with pain and back into the world of movement and flight and joy.

But I decided that rather than stay put, I was going to say “yes” to whatever the universe offered me as long as the offering wouldn’t kill me.  Reconnecting with the friends I lost track of along the way out of shame in my years of illness?  Yes.  Try dating while sober?  Yes.  Try a heady fling that left its metallic taste of adrenaline in the mouth—like swallowing blood, sharp and clear?  Yes.  Try affection, transparency, and vulnerability with the people, new and established, in my life?  Yes.  Try to say “yes” with integrity and authenticity. 

In one of the photo albums at my parents’ house, there is a picture of me when I’m six in the hours before my birthday party.  The backyard table is strewn with streamers and party favors.  On each paper plate, a tasseled, pointed hat and one of those noisemakers that uncurl like a long, happy tongue.  For some reason, I am not in a party dress, but in a blue flowered bikini.  On my feet?  No MaryJanes, but roller skates.  My arms are opened wide and one foot is lifted from the ground.  Me, the photo seems to say, this is me moving into my boundless life.  It is the “yes” I say now.          

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When You're Sober and Your Partner's Not

When I got sober, I didn't ask my then-husband to quit drinking.  In the foggy, shame-filled logic of early sobriety, I felt guilty.  After all, he had moved the booze from a locked cabinet (which I easily picked open with a kabob skewer) to some other super secret place in support of my recovery.  Underground bunker?  Mars?  A few months in, though, he wondered if it would be okay to bring it all back home.

"Yes," I said.  "I'm fine.  I'm the one who can't drink, not you."

The cabinet was reassembled with the delicious clutter of scotch, gin, vodka, ouzo, tsipouro, brandy, kahlua, rum, tequila, and wine.

It was mostly fine, except when it wasn't.  At night, over dinner, he would pour himself a glass or two or a third splash of wine, and sitting beside him on the couch, I could smell that dark promise, just like the little vial marked "Drink Me" in Alice in Wonderland, filled with "not-poison" liquid that smelled of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.  I scrambled to remember that what he was drinking would indeed kill me.  Maybe not right there on the couch in front of the blazing fire and the big screen TV broadcasting The Walking Dead and its rotting, zombie bodies, but in a few drinks, a few days, a few bottles.  Alcohol flips the suicide switch in my brain.  I might be sitting on the couch eating an arugula and egg pizza, but after a bottle of cabernet, I want to cut my wrists with the crusts.

I believed that my recovery was my fault, my business, my responsibility.  It was and is.  But in a marriage or relationship, recovery is pursued together.  I believed this even as we sat on the couch pretending that our marriage was also healing.  Even as I fetched him a scotch glass at the end of the evening so he could pour himself a snoot or two.  After all, he had the difficult job of living through and with me.  It was the least I could do.  Even as I gathered up the wine glass and scotch glass and hand washed them. I hated scotch, but in the last days of my drinking, took swigs straight from the bottle, swallowing fast and hard, trying to obliterate myself.  Still, I reasoned, this was my just dysfunctional penance.

Some nights, fewer in the end of our marriage, we had sex, a sign that we were still bound to each other (though, he was already, by this time, bound to another woman).  Since sex necessitates bodies against each other, mouth against mouth, breath against cheek, I had to hold my breath when he moved close.  Not out of distaste for him, but for the booze.  I couldn't taste his scotch and wine in my mouth, couldn't breathe in the potential for damage.  Sex shifted from (fraught) pleasure to my fending off a longing for drink and drunkenness, and my turning away (staring at the wall, the dresser, the knobs on the dresser) to stay intact.

Alcohol always made sex easier for me; I was less barbed with the thorns of insecurity and disconnection.  By extension, alcohol made it easier to forget what I'd done while drinking alcohol which would then, once again, make me do shameful things which I would need to again forget.  The ouroborus.  The snake eating its tail.  At one of our very drunken Christmas parties  (think guests throwing up in the bathroom or passed out on the couch), I batted my eyelashes at my husband (who thought maybe I's had enough to drink), and wooed him into sex on the back steps.  Thrilling because we could be discovered, but it was my way to deflect his attention.  He would be agog at my daring and I could continue with vodka cranberries.  The next morning, hungover, I could only feel shame.  That wasn't me, not really.  

What was becoming clear, too, was that the "me" who had married my husband, who had spent years and years drinking at ports of call all over the world, and waking up hungover and ashamed in these places, was no longer able to sit on the couch and pretend that his drinking with me was okay.  Alcohol muddies intentions.  Did he want to have sex with me, or, like my plastered performance on the stairs, was his desire fueled by booze?  Beer-wine-scotch goggles?  Was he interested in authenticity and integrity with me, something I was trying to practice in recovery?  (Apparently not, evidenced by his secret, several-years affair).

I don't know if a future partner will have to be a sober partner.  Perhaps my now-ex-husband's drinking was troublesome because we had spent so many years ritually drinking together.  We clinked glasses on balconies and in vineyards and on beaches in Italy, France, Greece, and Turkey.  Many of our loveliest and most poisonous memories are strung together by booze and its accompanying love and anger and betrayal and regret.  How do you come out from under that weight?  How does one partner summon the hopeful promise (writ small: soft unwinding of a day) of Laphroig in a crystal Tiffany snifter while the other is trying not to guzzle the bottle (that same hope, writ large: this will finally make me okay).

Now that I live on my own, in a house without booze, I am less vigilant.  Maybe I'll binge on mandarin oranges or handfuls of Lucky Charms, but there's nothing (barring a slip on a dog squeaky toy or impalement by Legos) that can kill me.  When I need to blot myself out, I call friends and talk until empty.  When I'm feeling insecure, or unhappy or unfunny or unlovable, I write my truth, hug my kids and dog, and expend all that prickly energy at CrossFit or on the track.  And sober sex?  With its clear intent and active choice, it is dangerous and thrilling because it is full of feeling.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Divorce and the Ex-Husband Tattoo

In the year since my divorce, I’ve been visiting a plastic surgeon every month.  Not for Botox, though maybe that would help the mid-forties creases across my forehead, nor for Latisse, which might assist me in batting longer eyelashes at potential romantic partners, but for tattoo removal.  I sit in the cushioned lounger, wearing enormous orange-tinted goggles, the kind you might use for downhill skiing, and the doctor sits across from me on a stool, also goggled, wielding the light-beam laser. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but this is going to hurt.”  He turns on the machine, and the light sparks against my skin in sharp pricks of pain.  The laser moves slowly across the tattoo, raising an immediate, red, blistering welt.  This hurts, more than getting the tattoo in the first place, but I am well-practiced in swallowing pain.  Really, it’s just a matter of breathing through it, telling myself that it will pass.  When you’re Bipolar, when you’ve been decimated by an eating disorder and alcoholism, when your arms are crisscrossed with scars from when you used to cut yourself, a little transitory pain is nothing at all.

Which is not to say that removing the tattoo is any less painful than all of that.  On my first visit, the doctor inspected my arm; my wrist to be precise.  The old shame rose up because I was certain he was narrowing in on the scars.

“Not the whole tattoo,” I said.  “Just my ex-husband’s name.  I want to keep my kids’ names and the swallows.”

“You know,” he said, and ran his thumb across my wrist, across my ex’s name in Greek letters, a band of stylized black ink, “I have two rules for tattoos.  One: no tattoos on the neck.  Stupid idea.  And two: only tattoo blood relatives, or children, on your body.  The rest you’ll regret.”

That first time, on the drive home, I cried.  My ex-husband’s name was indecipherable, a red throbbing flame across my wrist.  It looked as if I had cut myself again, something I hadn’t done in years.  The wound whispered to me in that old way: Hurt yourself.  You deserve it.  Even he stopped loving you. 

But what I really cried over was what I had already lost.  I got the tattoo five years earlier, after my last residential treatment for my eating disorder and bipolar disorder.  I’d been staring at my forearms, counting scars, ruminating on the years of impulsive damage, on the shiny straight-edge razors and the rusty ones filched from tool boxes, on broken glass pocketed from gutters, on kitchen scissors, sewing scissors, nail scissors, serrated knives, chef’s knives, and at my most stupidly desperate?  When I was in the ICU after a manic suicidal overdose, a nurse gave me a can of Diet Coke—metal flip-top intact.  With every shower, every application of body cream, every decision to wear short sleeves or a bathing suit, I had to face what I’d done.

What could I do that would change the way I saw those scars?  What could I do that might give me pause in the next impulsive flash?  What could I do that would remind me of what ties me to this world of love and joy and redemption, namely my husband and children?

A tattoo.  On my wrist, superimposed on the tangle of scars.  Greek themed, since so much of our lives were tied to that county—engagement, pregnancy, infancies, depressions, recoveries, our four-square made one.  Two swallows swooping at each other, an ancient archaeological painting from a site in Santorini. Swallows: the birds of spring, of new life, of hope.  Surrounding the birds, the names of my family in Greek:  The intended result?  I could look at my arm and see meaning and purpose.

Mad Mike, the tattoo artist, buzzed at my wrist with his needle. At one point, he stopped, and said, “You’re awfully quiet.  My clients tend to make a little more noise.  They find it painful.”

I shrugged.  “I do a lot of yoga.”

He laughed.  “But you seem serene.  But I guess I can see you are maybe used to pain in this area?”

“That’s what the tattoo is for.  Hope.  A reason to live.”

“I’m glad I can create that for you.  Not my usual barbed wire or Celtic Knot.”

I surprised for my family.  My (ex-)husband loved it, and my daughter wanted to get a tattoo of her stuffed dragon. 

“You know what else that’s cool about it?” she said.  “It’s beautiful and it covers up all those scars!”

Divorce revises our understanding of the shared dream, the shared future, that four-square made one.  What keeps me here has necessarily shifted.  My children are still part of how I see myself unfolding.  But what I have discovered, is that while I was inscribing my family on my body, it was simultaneously breaking apart.  My ex-husband told me he loved what I had done to myself (finally something that I’d done to myself that didn’t inch me closer to death but towards life), but he what he didn’t tell me was that he was having an affair, and not invested at all in our shared future.  I often wonder what he must have been feeling when he saw his name on my wrist, and knew that he was lying, or leading me to believe in a lie.  And how maybe he couldn’t tell me because my recovery indelibly depended on us. 

His name, after a year of treatments, is almost gone.  The light beam breaks down the ink and scatters the black particles throughout my body.  They will always be there--floating microscopic memories of love and pain, of what can and can’t, in the end, be erased.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

10 Things No One Told You About Divorce

1. Sometimes you eat like a scavenging member of the Donner Party, dragging a carrot through a tub of expired hummus, eating bran cereal (or the kids' Lucky Charms) by the fistful straight from the box, spooning peanut butter, the main protein source, onto your tongue, and shaking chocolate chips from the bag for dessert. You do all of this standing by the sink in the dark because you don't believe it's worth the effort to cook sustaining, delicious food just for yourself. People begin tell you that since the divorce, you've gone feral.
2. You start walking around the house in shabby underwear (when you don't have the kids), and notice your white panties are gray. So you shuck them off, and your tired bra, too, and look down at the body that you agonized over for all those married years. You doubted that you were enough and his affair seemed to confirm this. But standing naked now, with just yourself to please, you suddenly realize: "I am effing beautiful."
3. If you change your married name back to your unmarried name, your younger name, your name before all of the collective joy and pain, you cry the first time that you sign a check or bill, having to invent a new signature on the spot. That signature might even resemble your childhood signature: a loopy, hesitant inscription of your name on the world. Resist dotting your "i" with a heart.
4. If you have children, they worry about you. They say, "You should try to find someone! Go online! We just want you to be happy like Dad is with X." You might want to say something disparaging about their father and the girlfriend. Don't. Your children love you and their father with their wide and forgiving hearts. Instead, pull them close, kiss each cheek, and say, "I have you. I don't need a man to make me happy." Which is true, but also a tiny lie.
5. If you venture into online dating, know that perfect strangers will ask you to describe your calves and teeth, as if you are up at the cattle auction; couples will ask you to couple with them; voyeurs will want to watch you with younger partners; and younger partners will woo you with their staying power, intuiting, too, your mid-life desperation (the ex is already engaged to the other woman). Delete these messages. Or not. Trudge around the house in your gray underwear or have an exhilarating fling.
6. You spend a lot of time inspecting the gray roots when you blow-dry your hair, wondering how you got to be this old and alone. When you towel off after showering, you'll notice the gray hair below that simultaneously sprouted with the divorce decree. Dye the top? Dye the top and bottom? Surely someone else will come along so grooming is essential. Your secret fear? No one is coming along again. Except for the crazy stalker guy from
7. Because your ex was usually in the driver's seat, he generally set the radio station, the temperature, and the level of road rage. You are now Danica Patrick. Turn up Taylor Swift, blast the heat, and instead of shouting invectives at other drivers, encourage the kids to join you in a sing-a-long to "Bad Blood." They won't actually sing-a-long, and slump in their seats when you pump the brake, pretending to have bad-ass hydraulics. But they will see that you can be happy alone and with them.
8. You realize all the pee on the toilet was not, in fact, your ex's, but is due to your son's bad aim. You feel guilty over all the times you stepped on wet tiles and sat on the wet toilet seat, damning your ex to outhouse hell. You feel guilty for all the arguments, for going to bed angry, for holding your ground long after it mattered. However, guilt aside, in the next co-parenting email exchange, you need to tell your ex to work on your son's toilet etiquette.
9. You are not be prepared for the vast ocean of your king-sized bed. At night, even though you have an extra ten feet of space, space you coveted when you were married (you were pushed to the edge of the bed by your husband, the dog, and often, your son), you still sleep on a narrow sliver. In fact, you don't disturb his side but pile your dirty yoga pants in an approximation of his body, like filling in the empty space of a body's outline at a crime scene. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you pat the lumpy, reassuring pile as if he is there.
10. Sometimes, it feels like the end of your life. Your therapist nods ambiguously. "I hear you," he says. You're not sure he does. Later, when you are at your friends' house for dinner, the husband-friend tells you that he thinks you are amazing, and that you have come so far and with such grace, and that you are loved by so many. His eyes get wet as he says this. Divorce might feel like the wages of love's failure, but love still waits to catch you off guard.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Joy After Anorexia: The Marie Kondo Method

I came across an old pair of my really skinny jeans during my annual New Year’s closet cleanse, inspired by Marie Kondo’s advice that I only hold on to things that bring me joy.  I fondled my shirts, sweaters, skirts, dresses, and pants and waited for the fuzzy spark.  Brown, wide-legged corduroys circa 2002?  Black dress pants always covered in white fuzz?  Cheap Fair Isle sweater, my labor of love, requiring me to pluck hundreds of pills before wearing it anywhere other than bed?  I dropped them all in the “toss” pile. 

Then I found the jeans, bought in a sleek boutique in Bucharest, Romania in 2008 where my family and I lived for several months.  I didn’t speak Romanian or know my size so the salesclerk riffled through the impeccably folded stacks until she found the right pair, the smallest, most impossible size I’d ever been and only because I was anorexic, running miles and miles every day and measuring out my allowed calories.  But I felt smug, deluded joy holding the jeans at the cash register.  My hands burned with joy.  I no longer worried if clothes were too tight, no longer felt anxiety as I buttoned pants at my concave waist, no longer felt like a lumbering giant as my BMI indicated I could pass for a European runway model.  My body, which always felt unwieldy, was under my control: I was the unenlightened despot demanding to the death.

Recovery from my eating disorder has been long, agonizing, and often shameful.  Five inpatient treatment programs over three years.  While adult women over thirty comprise one-third of all eating disorder treatment admissions, there is still a bias in understanding this illness—it is assumed that it is a “young” woman’s illness, that older woman (i.e., women who no longer shop at Abercrombie) and men don’t equally stand in front of the mirror pinching what is “excess,” don’t equally starve themselves or purge their necessary meals, don’t equally die.
This is not a post about dying, but about joy because when I stood in the closet holding those really skinny jeans, I didn’t feel joy anymore or even longing’s shadow (i.e., please, God, let me wake up and be that weightless again).  Only relief: I could toss them because my joy was no longer about being weak (anorexia is exhausting, devours muscle, shrinks the brain, and damages the heart and all other organs), my joy comes from being strong.  Once upon a time, my daughter used to flinch when I hugged her because my bones hurt, and both of my kids sent drawings to hang on my hospital room walls as reminders to come home, and I was terrified of being bigger in body and heart.

What changed?  I started eating when I was hungry (the stomach churns and growls for a reason) and when I felt like it (yes, I’ll have that piece of chocolate).  I stopped counting calories, clothing sizes, laps, miles, and pounds.  I used to weigh myself ten times a day; now, I don’t own a scale.  I started CrossFit and stopped running to the ruminative mantra, “Less is more, less is more, less is more.”  CrossFit teaches me to love my tired, broken, but capable body, to see myself as a woman getting stronger, to eat more than I thought possible because that fuel allows my body to do what was once impossible.  At the weight that almost killed me, I could barely lift myself out of bed; now, I lift hundreds of pounds each week (though not all in one rep).  Working out with a group and running with friends keeps me honest and visible.  No more solitary Bataan Death Runs.  


If only all of my insecurities and secret moments of self-loathing could be tossed with the same sangfroid with which I finally disposed of the jeans.  But that is not exactly the whole truth.  I’ve been hiding those jeans at the bottom of my bigger-sized stack in the closet out of a dangerous nostalgia.  They were like an old movie reel spinning out a long-ago childhood scene: Look at how cute I was.  Look at how small I was.  Look at how happy I was.  I’ve been holding on to a similar reel: standing in that boutique with jeans that promised joy as long as I stayed at that size forever.  Consigning the jeans to the “toss” pile was a long-needed act of rebellion.  Never again.  Last night, I saw a picture of myself at CrossFit on a friend’s Facebook page: I am mid-deadlift and my growing muscles strain at the weight.  My expression is one of intensity and fear.  Will I die?  Not anymore.  I’m certain that after I set the bar on the ground, as always, my muscles trembled with the righteous fatigue of joy.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

When Dating Feels Like Cheating

I have never dated.  Not an adult man anyway.  High school boys?  We went to the diner, shared French fries with gravy (calories quickly burned in the nervous, metabolic state of awkward teens), and maybe exchanged a quick, tooth-bumping kiss before boarding separate buses home.  That was when we were sober.  Drunk on room temperature Budweiser?  Unsteady sloppy kisses in basement back rooms at keg parties.  This is how I met my high school boyfriends, my college boyfriend, even my husband.  Lust under the influence led to long-term love.  Less talking in the first few heady weeks, and more beer bongs, Jell-O shots, and in graduate school, jugs of cheap wine.  It’s easy to skip ahead to “I love you” after four or five drinks, though harder to backtrack to “But do I like you?”

My husband and I were together for twenty years before we divorced.  In all that time, I rarely fantasized about another man or woman, or man and woman.  Certainly, Colin Firth might have been imaginatively energizing in Pride and Prejudice.  Generally, though, I couldn’t swap my husband’s face with Mr. Darcy’s as easily as I used to exchange the heads of my Barbie and Ken dolls as they rolled around on the Dream House bed.  Additionally, my hockey-playing, Wisconsin-born husband didn’t usually woo me with haughty, aristocratic-speak (nor did he ride into the bedroom on a steed).  The dog, too, followed us onto the bed and invariably jumped off to vomit bottle caps and Legos on the floor.  So I was anchored in the now and the we of my romantic life rather than what else might be possible.

When my husband became “ex,” he told me that he hoped I had moved forward, as he had (though he had lead time on a new girlfriend).  To prove that I had and could (and wasn’t ready to consign myself to yoga pants and Downton Abbey), I accepted a lunch date with absolutely the wrong guy.  He asked, I said yes, flattered because it was the first-time since I was twenty-two that a man other than my husband was interested in me, and not just because I was his wife.  (A panicked “yes,” too, as I’d just plucked my first gray pubic hair.)  What else was I supposed to say?  All those drunk, initial hook-ups were about yes and yes and yes even when a sober no might try to assert itself as I jumped out of the bed and ran to the bathroom to vomit (last call tequila shots). 

The first-in-twenty-years date stealth-kissed me at the end of lunch.  Though I no longer drink and generally now have temperate judgment, instead of dodging the kiss, I moved toward it.  In the waning last years of marriage, my ex and I exchanged friendly-enough pecks but that did not imply the progression of romantic acts.  This kiss, terrible in both chemistry and execution, was no better because my thoughts leaned toward exacting clinical assessment: “First kiss in twenty years from someone other than my ex.  What are my lips supposed to be doing and how do I keep his tongue out?  Doesn’t he have a cold?”  If we were having a moment, it was over.

I’ve been trying on-line dating, mostly under the influence of my ex’s words: forward, forward, forward.  What better way to throw off the past and its mutual, married memories?  On-line dating promises variety and deliberate choice not muddled by late-night booze.  I could choose: taller than me, not a writer, maybe even a Republican (fiscally conservative, socially liberal, though not Tea Party).  I’ve gone on a few dates or “meet-ups,” as the twenty-six year old “match” corrected me, before proposing a night of oral extravagance.  “C’mon,” he said, “how long since you’ve had that?” (He knew exactly how to speak to my graying, newly divorceéd self, but I turned him down.  Closer to my daughter’s age than mine).

The Quiet Man: I leaned so far over our table at Starbuck’s to hear him that my chin skimmed the top of my Venti Latté and I still had to ask him to repeat himself; after thirty minutes, I was exhausted.  Mr. Photoshop: His profile picture was ten years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter.  Even a minor misrepresentation could be trouble.  Was he really a smoker?  Was his wife at the park with the kids?  An Academic and a Gentleman: Our profiles said we were a 96% match.  Witty, intelligent messages back and forth.  A lovely date at a museum where we admired an exhibition of lascivious porcelain.  At the end of our second date, a quick (post-divorce #2) kiss.  Collegial despite the romantic rain. 

My problem is not the men I meet, though living in rural Pennsylvania makes it difficult to meet anyone who doesn’t spend his weekends in camouflage tracking deer.  My problem is that being with someone other than my former husband still feels like cheating.  He kissed me on the altar promising his love, in sickness and health, and his faithfulness, not random lunch man; he stood beside me in the birthing room, holding my hand, as my daughter, and then three years later, my son slid into the world, not Colin Firth; he knew me when I was twenty-two and thirty and forty, knew me well and sick and then better, not OkCupid matches (at least, not yet).  Though we fell out of love, he loved me best for so many years.  But I know some day my kiss will come that will make love possible again.       

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How To Survive Christmas Without My Kids

The other night, I sat on the floor in front of my Christmas tree, listening to holiday standards, while wrapping presents for my kids, and cried.  Big, splashy tears that streaked my shirt; snot ran over my upper lip.  I won’t be with my kids this Christmas; they’ll be with my ex-husband and the girlfriend, and my now lost family in Wisconsin. 

Year on, year off. It seemed like such a sensible solution when we wrote up the divorce settlement: we each get the kids, every other year, for the holidays.  Easy (or easier) to divide everything up rationally, “equitably,” yours and mine.  Except when you’re holding the (spoiler!) Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego Set, and Frank Sinatra is crooning, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.  Let your heart be light.  From now on our troubles will be out of sight,” and you realize this totally, amazing, awesome gift for your son might turn out to be THE duplicate gift because someone else already gave it to him on Christmas Day.  This is the paranoia of grief and longing.

But what I’ve learned this year (besides the fact that divorce is painful and lonely, but liberating) is how good I have it when it comes to my friends (include family here).  The night when I was a puddle on the floor, my sister called to tell me that she sent a “Christmas Family Movie Night” gift box: gifts to be opened in conjunction with a movie, at coordinated times.  Twenty-one gifts.  She wanted us to have an early Christmas together before we had to separate.  

My kids, who no longer believe in Santa, are giddy with excitement, and circle the box, feeling the wrapped gifts, trying to guess what each might be. 

“#2, says to put it in the microwave,” Sophia said.  “Popcorn!” 

Alexander shook it.  “Definitely!” 

In the grand scheme of things, Christmas is just another day.  At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself--another day to get through.  But my sister sent a box of joy.

This is how my friends have surprised and sustained me all year.  Not necessarily with actual gifts, though there have been those, too (yoga lessons when I couldn’t afford them, flowers, books), but with their unwavering presence.  By presence, I don’t just mean their bodies on the couch beside mine, though that, too, as a hand, a shoulder, and a hug are pretty good antidotes to the flattening loneliness of the weeks by myself.  By presence, I mean their loving, supportive, patient attention.  Listening to me, walking with me, running with me, feeding me, answering the phone, the texts, the need I have had this year for love, proof of love, after its absence for so long.  Heartbreak is greedy and the broken self clamors for reassurance: who am alone without (his) love?  My friends remind me that I am necessary to them, that I am worth the irritation and frustration and disappointment because most essentially, I am funny and intelligent and compassionate and help complete their world.  My history, to them, is part of what makes me enough.  

“Really, who is going to want to stick around with me after I tell him about [insert here: Bipolar/Anorexia/Alcoholism/Disability]?” I said to my sister one night. 

“Stop it,” she said.  “The right person will come along and none of that will matter because it’s part of you.  He’ll love you for living through it and not giving up.”

My friends often interrupt my doom-laden forecasts with equally absolutist optimism: “Stop it. The universe has a plan for you.  It won’t always be this painful.  It won’t.” 

David Whyte, in his book, Consolations, writes this of friendship:  “In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.”  

Movie night boxes.  Netflix binges.  Countless cups of tea and seltzer (my friends always ask if I’d rather they not drink around me).  Pasta dinners with my kids.  Vegetarian haute cuisine when I’m alone.  Time, so much of their valuable time (they have families and work, too) given to me.  It is why I will make it through this Christmas.  My brother and sister-in-law bought me a ticket home to New York for the holiday so that I will be with family, instead of waking up in an empty house, with gifts under the tree that won’t be unwrapped for days.  It is why I am blessed instead of merely broken.    

Thursday, December 3, 2015

How To Recover From Infidelity

…And after
the first minute, when I say, Is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.

“Unspeakable,” Sharon Olds

How do you recover from infidelity?  You don’t.  At least, not quickly.  Every day I wrestle (narcissistically) with the questions: “Why wasn’t I enough?” and “How could I not have known for all those years?”  Naively, I trusted my marriage contract, that vow to faithfulness (often dismissed by recent researchers who say that we are hard-wired for infidelity and shouldn't expect more from our genes).  Even when an open marriage was suggested (and I said “no”), I attributed that to mid-life fantasy (rather than an actual woman my husband was furtively seeing).  In the New York Times article, “Great Betrayals,” psychiatrist Anna Fells writes, “Frequently, a year or even less after the discovery of a longstanding lie, the victims are counseled to move on…But it’s not so easy to move on when there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on. Perhaps this is why many patients conclude in their therapy that it’s not the actions or betrayal that they most resent, it’s the lies.”  Lies, yes.  I found out about the affair through a third party who wanted to tell me about my then husband’s extramarital relationship years ago, believed I deserved the truth, but my husband and the other woman convinced him that if he told me, I would kill myself.  Do I need to comment on this self-serving assumption?

For months now, I’ve been mired in grief.  Someone attributed this to my mental illness, rather than, say, to my divorce, not yet a year in fact, or to my discovery that my ex-husband had been having an affair for the last three years of our marriage with a mutual friend.  Easier to point to my Bipolar disorder as the reason for difficult, unshakeable emotion.  That attribution is a reflex, even for me—checking and rechecking in with myself and trusted friends about the legitimacy of what and how much I should feel.  Certainly, before stability, before the balancing effects of Lithium, my moods flipped between free-wheeling suicidal despair, anger, and mania.  In recovery, I ask friends, “Is it okay to still be depressed over the divorce?  Is it okay to be angry that the other woman sits on the sidelines at my kids’ games and eats off the china my grandmother gave us for our wedding?  Is it okay that I’m not okay?”  
It’s easier, more ladylike to write about grief over the end of a twenty-year relationship.  Every day (especially at night), I feel like I’m in a UFC cage with Ronda Rousey, pummeled to the floor until I’m knocked out.  It’s easier to write about the loneliness of being on my own, without a partner, without filial love.  Easier to write about my guilt over my years of illness as the cause of marital collapse.  “I’m sorry,” my then-husband said when we first talked of divorce, “but your illness changed the way I saw you.” 

I wasn’t angry when he said this because I agreed not-loving-me could be the only rational consequence of my illness.  Could I really expect his continued love after he hid knives and medications from me?  After he followed me to the toilet after meals, making sure I didn’t purge?  After he visited me in the psych ward over and over, eventually believing, as most, that recovery was impossible?  Similarly, who would blame his infidelity with a crazy wife like me?

“People said I should leave you,” he said.  Again, I wasn’t angry but grateful since shame annihilates self-worth.  But would this same counsel be offered for an unremitting physical illness—cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s?  Mental disorders are often misrepresented as acts of (ill)will: you can choose to think better, act better, feel better, but you don’t.  
I’ve been afraid to write about anger.  Anger is dangerous and disruptive.  Angry women are seen as irrational bitches (“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”).  Women worth loving keep quiet, ride out the storm, placidly smiling even though the boat is sinking.  But my anger is not about being scorned but about being lied to. 

The last time I was inpatient, over four years ago, I was on the hospital pay phone, listening to my then-husband tell me that this was my last chance to tell the truth to my treatment team, that our marriage depended on it.  Ironically, at the very same time he was demanding my honesty, he was with the other woman who had come on a clandestine visit while I was in the hospital. “You lied first with your drinking and eating disorder,” he said in later explanation.  A screwy logic but one that comes back to the acceptable, mutually agreed upon source: my illness, and thus, also my responsibility.
Most of my anger, though, is about revision.  Though my memory’s hard drive was wiped out by electric shock treatments, a few scenes surface and repeat, ones that I’ve held onto as evidence that married love survived those years of pain: our shared rhythm at the end of the day, managing kids and meals and dogs and cats; lying next to each other on the beach in Greece or Jamaica; sprawling on the couch watching movies, eating pizza, relieved that our life was again reliable.  And of course, I recorded here, on this blog, all his assurances of love and fidelity and our shared future, which in painful retrospect, were lies, as simultaneously, there were secret phone calls, emails, and meetings with her. 

All of these memories are now corrupted.  My version, representing fused, marital time, is in retrospect, false: he was not with me, but already with her, and I just didn’t know it.  No way to trust my narrative because after we watched those movies, said goodnight, (“Love you, Love you”—the short cuts of reassurance and recommitment), and I went upstairs to bed, he called her, and they talked of love and desire and their future together.
Eventually, I’ll move towards forgiveness, but for now I’m trying to banish shame and acknowledge anger.  Living in truth is always the hardest choice.